When Father Toller, pastor at one of the oldest churches in the country, is asked to counsel a young man in his small congregation, he struggles with the despair he finds, the disillusionment he is infected by, and the people around him who seem not to understand.
A Film I Aspire To
As a Filmmaker and a Christian, I occasionally come across films which I end up treasuring. They are films that express an aspect of my faith in all of the ways that I wish I could. Employing sound, image, silence, light, performance in a harmonious meditative symphony. I stand in awe of film makers who are able to do that and even more so on the rare occasion that I see more than just passing nods to my faith.
This is one of those films. I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way I do, although I am sure aspects of this film will resonate with both Christian and Artistic audiences, but I can’t help feeling like the film I saw this afternoon will soon join films such as “The Mission,” “The Island (Ostrov),” and “Silence,” my favorite Christian films.
The first shock of the film is that it is an a 4x3 aspect ration. Similar to what many people grew up watching on their home television sets before HDTV, it has a strange quality in a movie theater. To me, it invited an odd intimacy. It was close and cramped but not in an altogether unfamiliar way.
The whole film gave off an air of familiarity and tension. Perhaps, because my background is similar in some ways to the director’s and we most likely have some similar touchstones of memory and experiential anchors, much of the imagery used in this film cuts right to my soul. The contrasts between order and chaos, personal and corporate, traditional and modern, private and public, and hope and despair all seem to find expression in the mise en scene, the perfectly chosen locations, costuming, and character blocking.
The cinematography is understated but purposefully so, for when Schrader chooses, the camera sweeps into action to reinforce the themes playing in Father Toller’s heart. When the camera is still, it is because the heart is still. Heavy truths weigh the image down but when soaring heights are felt the camera’s moves are felt all the more as it slips the away from the moorings which held it.
While the camera work is merely the work of sure competence, the acting of Ethan Hawke (The Before Trilogy) is the work of inspired brilliance. Hawke deftly navigates complicated water in this film. In films, the spiritual is often portrayed as a meditative and peaceful river. The guru sits upon the rock overlooking the ocean's deep blue immensity and knows that he is one with it and all things.
This portrayal is different. It knows that spirituality is full of struggle and pain. Despair and joy do battle in the human heart though and in Ethan Hawke's portrayal you feel the pangs of arrows and the glimpses of heaven through the clouds. The anguish that comes with true conviction is fierce in his eyes and his horror when discovering written proofs of man's evil is as palpable as when he is experiencing a heartbreaking personal loss.
Hawke has a way of portraying Father Toller with a nakedness that seems born of a man who has lost the ability to hide their frustrations and true concerns any longer. A man who is broken, knows he is broken, and can't bother trying to hide it any longer.
The entirety of the film rests on Hawke's shoulders as Father Toller's wrestling is the thrust of the film. Thankfully, he delivers one of the most resonant performances I have felt in a film since Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Fr. Rodrigues in "Silence."
Unlike "Silence," however, "First Reformed" is about and aspect of faith that most serious Christian will have to confront. Perhaps not the specifics of Father Toller's struggle but certainly the underlying difficulty of knowing the high calling we have, what it costs, how inadequate we are, and the despair that comes on the heals of those thoughts.
When I watched "Silence," I found myself asking, what would I do if I was in that situation? But in "First Reformed" it was, Oh, I understand how he feels, I feel that way all the time. While the specifics that are presented in the film; Environmentalism, Consumerism, Pop Christianity, Violent Disobedience, and Social Reform; may not be relatable to every specific person, that underlying conflict between what one believes to be of vital importance and the ways that we feel powerless to truly commit to those values, will find resonance in every heart.
There are many aspects of this film which could take up a whole review in and of themselves. Alas, I have not the space to devote to the temptation to violence, the concern for nature, and the fast food Christianity which is deftly critiqued and explored but then again, that isn't the goal of my review. It is the goal of the film maker and he soundly succeeds in presenting an intimate meditation on all these subjects.
My goal then is simply to convince you to see this film.
Clearly, I loved this film. It is emblematic of why I love film in genera and the reason I write reviews for Christians. To highlight what is beautiful but often overlooked, left unseen as it appears unclean, and undervalued because of the immensity of its worth.
I hope you don't ignore this film because it is hard to find, walk past the theater because of its R rating, or opt for a simpler happy film and in so doing, miss out on a spiritual experience.